Weekend Open Thread: Do Elite Democrats Care More Than Republicans about Income Inequality? Read on!




Income Inequality Map


I love a good social science study.  This one, published a week ago in Science, is one that you should all want to read.  It’s one that has particular relevance to Orange County and its politics: a study of elite preferences regarding income distribution.  And the headline involves how partisan ideology and social status interact with those preferences.  Let’s just say that Green Party members will likely love it, Republicans and Libertarians will be reassured by it — and Democrats had damn well better strive to understand it!

If slogging through a dry journal article is not your cup of tea, I suggest reading this engaging write-up by two of the study authors in Slate.  And, if you do hate dry reading, you may want to skip the next “grayed out” paragraph — at least until after you’ve gotten to the good stuff.

Like many social psychological studies — and yes, it is that, even though it’s the part of the field colonized by the economics field now called “behavioral economics” — it has its limits of how far you can reasonably generalize from its results.  It’s a study done on students, but in some ways that’s likely to diminish rather than exaggerate its effects.  It defines “elites” based on student populations at Berkeley and — especially — the famously erratic and idiosyncratic population of Yale Law School.  (One wonders how its results would stand up both with a broader spectrum of elites and with those who were already well into their working lives.  Its task, while involving the exchange of money, did not involve the exchange of much money, especially by elite standards.

The study’s authors summarize the findings this way:

Elite Americans are not just middle-class people with more money. They display distinctive attitudes on basic moral and political questions concerning economic justice. Simply put, the rich place a much lower value on equality than the rest. What’s more, this lack of concern about inequality among the elite is not a partisan matter. Even when they self-identify as progressive Democrats, elite Americans value equality less highly than their middle-class compatriots.

This finding has profound implications for public policy. Contemporary American politics presents an enduring mystery. Why does the public policy response to nearly five decades of rising economic inequality remain so tepid, even as large majorities of Americans consider inequality excessive, and even under a two-term Democratic president? Our study … proposes an answer: Regardless of party, the elite donors whose money dominates politics, and the elite officeholders whose decisions set policy, don’t value economic equality. When the American government abjures egalitarian policies, it is implementing the bipartisan preferences of the American elite.

Read the Slate article to see how the study was done.  It measured two concepts as a function of decisions about how the divide up a monetary pie: one, is how selfish people were (how much they kept for themselves versus how much they gave away) and the other being how much they value efficiency.  For every dollar — and these were real dollars, the subject’s compensation for taking part in the experiment — that a subject was willing to give up, an anonymous beneficiary would receive from as little as a dime to as much as $10.  (Multiplying the effect of one’s donation by ten is very “efficient”; letting 90% of what you’ve given not go to its intended target is “inefficient.”)

If one cares only about efficiency, one gives a lot when giving is efficient and much less when it is cheap.  If one cares only about equality of results, one is willing to reduce the total amount given out in order to achieve that end — call it equality or, more accurately, merely “fairness.”  Taxing the rich more, even if it may lower GDP overall, is a real-life analogue of such a decision.

The highly elite Yale Law students and the pretty darned elite Berkeley students were about twice as selfish as members of the general population.  Separately, when it came to “efficiency” versus “equality,” the general population split about 50-50 in preferring these ends, which the Berkeley undergrads favored efficiency by about 60-40 and the Yale Law students favored it by about 80-20.

Now here’s the kicker: of those indicating an identification with one of the two major parties, the population of Yale Law students was more than 90% Democratic!  While the Democratic Party as a whole favors income redistribution, these future elites — largely Democratic elites — believe that it is much more important to create more resources than it is to worry about their distribution!

You, if you’re a Republican or Libertarian, may wonder: what’s wrong with that?  Of course you do: you believe in “trickle-down” economic theories in which the more money goes to the upper classes the more will inevitably end up with the middle and lower classes.  Democrats, with much better evidence behind them, tend to favor a “percolation” theory: money being in the non-elite classes is more likely to be spent rather than hoarded and to stay within the locality and country rather than being exported.  In other words, it more effectively stimulates the economy.

Beyond that, money in the lower classes is rarely used for bribery and other forms of lobbying.  That’s what people often overlook when they presume that efficiency is necessarily better than some degree of inefficiency accepted in the service of equality: the excess money enjoyed by elites is often — and increasingly — used to influence the operation and decisions of government.  This means both (1) the hiring of lawyers, lobbyists, and (in effect) legislators to shape future legislation and its enforcement and (2) the hiring of police, private security, and prison guards to ensure that even when that legislation and enforcement is atrociously bad for society — especially the relatively disempowered — people had just better accept it quietly if they value their freedom.

Elites tend to think that placing a greater value on equality than efficiency is sentimental and selfish.  In fact, it’s often a very rational defense against what elites are prone to do with all their excess money.  If we really were “dividing a pie,” then elites who were selfish would simply eat more and get fat.  But we’re not: we’re dividing the ability to determine future rules, so that (among other things) elites can make it harder for non-elites to even see the pie and certainly to protest against its maldistribution.

(Applications to Orange County politics are too obvious to require explicit statement here.)

One might like to think that Democratic elites are much better — less personally selfish and more inclined towards accepting inefficiency to avoid seriously disproportionate inequality — in this regard.  But this study — and now would be a good time to read that grayed out paragraph at the top questioning the generalizability of its results, if you haven’t — suggests that, overall, it isn’t so.  The authors conclude:

Our results thus shine a revealing light on American politics and policy. They suggest that the policy response to rising economic inequality lags so far behind the preferences of ordinary Americans for the simple reason that the elites who make policy—regardless of political party—just don’t care much about equality. Hemingway’s illusory but widely shared view that the only thing that separates the rich from the rest is their money thus disguises a central pathology of American public life. When American government undemocratically underdelivers economic equality, the cause is less party than caste.

Democracy gives the mass of citizens a path for protest when the gap between ordinary views and a closed rank of elite opinion grows too great. The populist insurgencies that increasingly dominate the contests to select both the Republican and Democratic candidates in the upcoming presidential election show the protest path in action. Elites—in both parties—remain baffled by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ appeal; and they prayerfully insist that both campaigns will soon fade away. Our study suggests a different interpretation, however. These bipartisan disruptions of elite political control are no flash in the pan, or flings born of summer silliness. They are early skirmishes in a coming class war.

This is, largely, what is behind the rifts in the Democratic Party in Anaheim and elsewhere in overall very wealthy OC: selfishness among self-interest elites trawling for donors, sure — but also a profound lack of populist empathy.  Oddly, many of our local Republicans have much more of that empathy than one would judge based on their Presidential candidates or the Republicans in Congress.  This is part of why OC’s political clashes are so bizarre — and why simple partisanship is not necessarily the sort of guide that it should be.

See — I told you that social science can be really interesting!

This, due to my lack of time to come up with an alternative, is your Weekend Open Thread.  Talk about that, or whatever else you’d like, within reasonable bounds of decency and discretion.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)